English-speaking olim provide Shabbat hospitality to seminary students

To better understand the issues that arise from Israel’s time-honored seminary Shabbat hospitality system, we interviewed hosts, seminary students and the head of a seminary.

 Shabbat (Illustrative). (photo credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)
Shabbat (Illustrative).
(photo credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)

As thousands of seminary students return to their homes outside of Israel this month, hundreds of English-speaking olim families are taking a break from hosting them for Shabbat.

For most seminary students, their year in Israel includes making plans to spend Shabbat with a family, often complete strangers, two to three times a month.

In most cases, this long-established system places responsibility for arranging Shabbat hospitality squarely on the shoulders of young women, many of whom arrive in Israel without family connections. It also places a disproportionate burden of hosting on English-speaking families with whom the students can comfortably communicate.

The existing system has both supporters and detractors. To better understand the issues that arise from Israel’s time-honored seminary Shabbat hospitality system, we interviewed hosts, seminary students and the head of a seminary

 JOSEPH & RUTHIE PEARLMAN (credit: Tavya Harris) JOSEPH & RUTHIE PEARLMAN (credit: Tavya Harris)
The hosts’ perspective

Since making aliyah from Riverdale, New York, Chavi Eisenberg estimates that her family has hosted well over 150 seminary students in her home in Neveh Daniel. The Eisenbergs have had overwhelmingly positive experiences as hosts.

“We enjoy finding and making connections with new people. Seminary students are in an exploration stage of life, so they often have insightful or curious questions and youthful idealism.

“In addition, I really enjoy cooking for a crowd, and part of that is sharing my enjoyment of preparing food with others. Many of the young women are just starting to cook, so it’s extra fun for me to demonstrate culinary tips and tricks to someone who is receptive and interested in learning,” Eisenberg related.

She finds it “especially gratifying” to hear from former guests “that they still remember some tips I showed them their first time in my kitchen. And, of course, I appreciate the extra hands to help with food prep.”

At the initiative of Chavi’s husband, the Eisenberg family keeps a guest book. “Over the years, we have collected some memorable, humorous and meaningful notes. It’s especially enjoyable when our new guests look through the book and discover that an older sibling or friend had already visited us.”

Despite their largely positive experiences, Eisenberg expressed a concern. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of coordination, even within schools. Every year, it seems like the school starts with a fresh list of hosts and doesn’t seem to share the information from previous years.

“In addition, we get a lot of calls toward the end of the school year, when the students finally realize that they want to explore different communities and have only a few Shabbatot left to do so. I wish the schools would encourage them, right from the beginning, to explore [and] be exposed to more interesting places and meet a variety of people.”

Ruthie Pearlman of Jerusalem estimates that she and her husband, Joseph, have hosted hundreds of seminary students since they made aliyah from London in 2015.

“Most girls are lovely, helpful and good company for me,” she shared.

At the same time, it wasn’t hard for Pearlman to come up with examples of ill-behaved guests, such as the time a “pair of girls lay giggling on my living room rug while my husband and I, both in our 70s, cleared up the lunch alone,” or the “group of girls [who] just ran out after Shabbos without saying goodbye, and left the rooms as they were, beds not stripped, lights blazing, garbage overflowing.”

To prevent a repeat of that, Pearlman said, “I now have a hotel-style list up in all my guest rooms listing how I expect the rooms to be left.”

She attributed bad behavior to the “spoiled and entitled” way some seminary students were raised, combined with a lack of education about “how to behave as a pleasant guest. I think seminaries should teach girls how to ask to be hosted, as well as how to behave when they get to their hosts.”

Despite the occasional shockingly behaved guests, “I feel so bad for the girls having to scrounge around for hosts every week, which is why I try and say yes, if I can and I’m not booked already,” Pearlman emphasized.

Frequent host Jonathan Feldstein, who made aliyah with his wife, Lori, and family from Teaneck, New Jersey, in 2004 and now lives in Efrat, was so concerned about the looseness of the Shabbat hospitality system for seminary students that he recently published an op-ed in Jewish Link with the headline “Safety Concerns for Your Daughters in Seminary.”

Feldstein addressed himself to American parents and pointed out some of the more egregious elements of the current system, including the expectation that their daughters will almost certainly find themselves “calling men they don’t know, whose names they got from some list, and inviting themselves for Shabbat.”

Feldstein’s strongest words were directed to heads of seminaries. He wrote, “But the situation is broken, and someone needs to fix it. For starters, seminaries need to vet the ‘lists’ from which your daughters are calling strangers. I don’t know who started the lists, but it’s my sense that they are by no means official in any way. I realize that this might increase their work, and even liability, but I assure you that if, God forbid, something horrible happens, they are plenty liable.”

Since their aliyah from Pittsburgh in 2013, Josh and Tali Wander have hosted about 1,000 seminary students. Their home in the Ma’aleh Hazeitim neighborhood, overlooking the Temple Mount, is a big draw. So is the Temple-oriented tour of the Old City Josh gives every visitor on Shabbat. In the list of names of host families that gets passed around, a Shabbat with the Wanders is identified as a must-have experience.

The Wanders “love interacting and teaching... and many girls say that they have learned more in one Shabbat by us than their whole year in seminary! Most are very respectful and mature, engaged and interested in gaining new experiences and having adventures,” Josh shared.

Josh, who is an independent aliyah advocate, explained, “We do try to push hard for aliyah, as most seminaries do not do this, and we feel this might be their only opportunity to hear this perspective. We actually try to take them out of their comfort zone, to get them to think about why they continue to live in the exile. We have had many girls, years later, tell us how influential that one Shabbat was with us. Who knows what one weekend could produce? Perhaps generations of Jews returning home to the Holy Land!”

Seminary students’ perspective

Aviva Chafetz came from Cleveland in 2021 to study at Michlalah Yerushalayim. Once a month, Michlalah offers a Shabbaton, an organized Shabbat experience. “When we don’t have a Shabbaton, they expect us to find Shabbat plans, either through the seminary or by ourselves. The seminary provides help setting us up with a family for Shabbat.

“I personally haven’t used that system and prefer to find places to go myself. I’m quite comfortable calling different families to host for Shabbat. There’s a ‘Shabbat list’ made by seminary students, consisting of different places they went to for Shabbat. There’s a few hundred names on it. I’ve tried to get in touch with some families on the list but never successfully arranged a Shabbat through it.

“Thank God, I have had many amazing Shabbat experiences this year. Arranging a Shabbat was never stressful for me, because I always have my grandmother and aunt [who live in Israel] to fall back on if I need a place to stay last minute.

“Thank God, I have family [in Israel], but many of my friends came to Israel not knowing anyone. I also wish there was more access to places all over Israel. I would have loved to go all over Israel, but most of my Shabbatot were spent near Jerusalem.

“Overall, making Shabbat plans was a non-stressful experience, and every Shabbat I experienced was absolutely beautiful and inspiring. I came out from each Shabbat with something that I wanted to implement in my own home,” Chafetz shared.

Brooklynite Sarah Gorin is completing her year of study at Ateres Bnos Yerushalayim. Although she reported that “it’s nice to stay in and have Shabbat [in seminary, where] it’s a very homey campus,” she also shared that “I was out a lot more than I was in.”

Ateres Bnos Yerushalayim has rules for its students to observe when they are being hosted. For example, they are not allowed to spend Shabbat in Tel Aviv, unless it’s with their own families. Parental permission is required for Ateres students to spend Shabbat in communities in Judea and Samaria.

Gorin explained that students are required to ask hosts about the level of kosher observance and, this year in particular, how they keep the laws of shmita, since this is a sabbatical year in Israel. Gorin shared that they were guided on how to ask respectfully, so as not to insult prospective host families.

She described how the 60 students at her seminary were coached on making Shabbat arrangements at the beginning of the year. “They gave us a list of numbers of people who host, and they told us always make sure to ask if you can bring linen. It’s always hard. It’s a little weird to invite yourself out. They gave us a script to follow until you get comfortable with calling strangers. In the beginning, it’s so awkward.”

She characterized going to the home of strangers for Shabbat as “scary. You never know who you’re going to. It’s a little nerve-racking.

“It’s hard when the hosts don’t include you in conversation. Sometimes the family doesn’t speak much English, or, if there are a lot of other guests or a big family, you get a little overlooked.”

Other experiences that made Gorin uncomfortable included parents disciplining their children in front of guests, and being hosted by families that clearly don’t have a lot of food.

On the other hand, witnessing “how different families run a Shabbat table” was a huge positive, one that Gorin said will help her determine “what I want for myself when I make my own Shabbat table.”

Despite “the awkwardness of calling strangers,” her overall experience has been positive.

“I think it’s wonderful that these people open their homes. Their children are super excited about this. The girls give up their rooms, and they make an effort to talk to us. Shabbat is really a day for your family, and they go out of their way and host every week. So many people do it all over the country. It’s something I’m so grateful for,” she enthused.

A seminary perspective

Rabbi Yaakov Lynn, dean and director of Meorot Yerushalayim, offered a seldom-heard insider perspective.

Meorot Yerushalayim is distinct from other seminaries. The 20-25 students Meorot enrolls each year generally come from nonreligious backgrounds. About this, Lynn commented, “We may look at this a little differently. We recognize that our students don’t have religious family in Israel. A lot aren’t used to the idea [of spending Shabbat with a family]. We know it’s our job to make sure they have Shabbat plans.”

At Meorot, two weeks a month, the students spend Shabbat together. The other two weeks a month they make their own Shabbat plans. Lynn said that Meorot students “can stay in the dorms and get set up for meals with local families. If they want, we make their Shabbat plans for them.”

Meorot’s housemother makes sure each student has a place to go for Shabbat.

“We have, as part of orientation, how to be a good Shabbat guest. They have to know how to do this,” Lynn emphasized.

One common criticism of the current system is that seminaries take advantage, off-loading their responsibility to provide for their students onto host families. This is seen as especially galling, since annual seminary tuition often exceeds $25K. Critics assume seminaries are netting huge profits.

Despite the high tuition, “It’s a massive misconception how much money seminaries make. I know personally that a lot of seminaries don’t make money,” Lynn asserted.

He explained why it is much more expensive to run a seminary for female students than a yeshiva for male students. “The salary structures are different. It costs a lot more to pay seminary faculty than yeshiva faculty.”

The seminary curriculum is much more varied, seminary teachers are paid by the hour and, in Meorot especially, the budget includes a lot of funding for private tutors. By contrast, Lynn characterized yeshiva as “guys learning Talmud. It’s a routine, with a few day trips [thrown in].” In addition, “yeshivot do more fund-raising, and people tend to give more to yeshivot [than to seminaries].”

He also emphasized that “seminary students require a higher standard of living. It really does cost $30K-35K per student per year,” Lynn confirmed. Additionally, “Very few girls are paying full tuition,” he elaborated.

Although the budgetary constraints are real, in principle Lynn is in favor of seminaries providing stipends to host families. “I know of at least one seminary that provides stipends to staff who host. If a seminary can do it, it’s a great thing. It’s an incentive for good families to host.”

Improving the system

Although there is a general consensus among hosts, students and seminary staff that the current Shabbat hospitality system is imperfect, steps can be taken to soften some of the system’s harshest edges.

Students clearly need more support for making Shabbat plans. At least one staff member should be assigned to coordinate Shabbat hospitality for the seminary’s students.

Seminary staff members need to more carefully vet the lists of host families that circulate among their students, ensuring that the families can provide a safe and appropriate Shabbat experience. Additionally, the awkward task of ascertaining a family’s kashrut standards should not rest with an 18-year-old who is requesting to be hosted, but should be clarified before adding a family to the list of hosts.

In order to ensure their peace of mind, hosts should clearly articulate the expectations they have of the students they host. A few bullet points sent to students in advance, along with a posted checklist, such as the one Pearlman created for her guests, can go a long way toward hosts being able to say, with a full heart, “Shabbat Shalom and welcome to our home!” ❖

Whatever happened to anywhere in Israel?

No discussion of Shabbat hospitality would be complete without a mention of Anywhere in Israel, a service that placed thousands of seminary and yeshiva students a year.

Avi and Rachel Nadel of Kochav Hashahar started Anywhere in Israel in 2001. According to Rachel, their goal was “connecting Jews with one another and creating a broader sense of Jewish unity in Israel.

“The target population was post-high-school Jewish youth in a very formative period of their lives. Bringing these students, many of whom are away from home for the first time, into the homes of families, offered a window into everyday life in Israel that they would otherwise never have known,” Rachel shared.

Today, the Nadels have 10 children and also care for a parent with Alzheimer’s.

“As life became more hectic for us, we simply could not keep up with the enormity of the project,” she explained.

Where once the Nadels made matches personally, Anywhere in Israel transitioned to an online system that allowed guests and hosts to communicate directly. Rachel is optimistic that the online system “will eventually be up and running again, thereby enabling students to once again benefit from the program.” ❖